Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Name Calling

Tonight, after class, you are at the deli counter of one of the better markets in town, picking up a whim-based quick fix for your dinner.  The time is a few minutes beyond seven-thirty, meaning the evening rush is on the wane.

You see two checkers at leisure, with no customers in line, eager to be home to prepare the evening meal.  Nevertheless, there is a din, a hum of activity, the invasive sounds of individuals in conversation and attitude.Soon you hear a particular voice, its source still not clear to you.  

The voice is calling your name.  Now, you stop, look about you, down one aisle, up another, bent on discovering the source and then the person behind the voice.  A few moments later, in a process of supermarket triangulation, you and your caller have achieved a momentary parallel park of your shopping carts while you catch up on the parade of personal history that has befallen each of you since your last  chance to visit.

The metaphor here is perfect.  Books and stories, however ant-like the process of their appearance in the world of publishing, commerce, and description make them seem, are so plentiful that you have long since tried to come to terms with those you wish to read, those you have no intention of reading, and those you might well wish to read, were you aware of their presence in the world.

Books and stories must call out to you in order to get your attention, the same way your friend got your attention in one of the middle aisles of Gelson's Market.  Knowing this to be true, you allow for a certain ongoing awareness of some of the new books and stories being published among the multitudes.  Books and stories are nearly as pervasive as random events in Reality/

Your current project has itself called out to you to the point where you are well into it, your ongoing proposal for it increasing at a daily basis.  It has your attention, but as your focus fixes on the growing vision of what the final project will look like, you understand how you are focusing on irony.

In its way, the project is the essence of simplicity, one hundred novels you've read over the years, starting at age ten, when you first encountered Huckleberry Finn, extending to some of the novels you believe have made significant impressions on you, to use your own words, knocked you on your literary ass.

With the possible exception of one you are considering changing for another title, you have your hundred novels.  You believe each of them, in its own way, has contributed to making you the writer you are (and by your own extrapolation, cause you to recognize the writer you would like to be but are not yet).  You have them broken into four categories that have relevance for you.  In addition, you've written brief introductions to explain and define these four categories.

Although some time has elapsed since you've reread some of these hundred novels, there is not one in the entire list you have not read at least twice.  In some cases,such as Huckleberry Finn, there is no accurate way to estimate the number of times you've read and reread, then studied the novel for hints, clues, direct and indirect examples of narrative techniques you feel the need to understand more than you do.

Each of these books engaged you to the point where you read, reread, studied, and in some cases even imitated.  Enter the irony, bearing a laundry list of requirements.  You cannot stop your work with a simple mention of a particular novel, then assign it to its place as Coming-of-age, Search, Puzzle, or Institution.  What you must do from the perspective of right now, of July, 2015 and however long thereafter it takes you to acknowledge closure with this project, apply the stethoscope to each of the one hundred.

You must listen to the novel as it once again speaks to you, moves you in the one or more ways it moved you at early or more recent times in your life.  There is no justification you can see for recounting the pollen of these hundred novels.  For one thing, they're available in Wikipedia; for another thing, there is a likelihood many of them have been the subject of explanatory texts, such as the Cliff's Notes revised edition you did for Thomas Hardy's estimable novel, The Return of the Native ( which, much as you liked it, you did not include in your own one hundred novels because it did not knock you.  Impressed, yes, but so too did other of Hardy's novels, including The Mayor of Casterbridge,  one that almost made it to the one hundred because of its first chapter.

What are you listening for?  Only in the most peripheral sense will you be listening to plot.  You will be listening to ways their characters call out to you, asking you to look at the ways they made their appearances on stage.  First and foremost, they will get your attention in the same fashion your attention was wrested from the quotidian by your friend, with their narrative voice.  Their wit will help, but so too will their pathos, their bawdiness, their cleverness, their mischievousness in exposing the institutions and situations you consider to be sensitive to a romp with mischief.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

It's a Mystery to Me

Writing a book or story more often than not forces you into a series of conversations.  Some of these conversants with whom you interact are you at various stages of your life.  These conversations may be broken down into the you who is at the captain's wheel now, strutting and fretting your moments with other aspects of yourself who've more or less given up in despair or gone off on vacation or, in the spirit of total self-acceptance, taken up some activity such as lawn bowling or--shudder--bingo.

The book you are giving the most focus at the moment gives you some daily reason to see how this conglomeration of conversations with the you of yore is as apt as if you were delving into a novel or short story, playing various aspects of yourself against one another, or, to extend the metaphor, plunking them into a cocktail shaker thereupon to give them a brisk shaking.

This book is the previously mentioned The One Hundred Novels You Need to Read Before Writing Your Own, a book that may well be reminding you about the novel you've been toying with for at ;east the past two years.  This book may well have come into being in order to get you to feel the strength of pull you recognize necessary for the novel and which, indeed, you've experienced with most of your recent fiction.

You can make a convincing argument that two of the more significant and memorable novels in your current work of nonfiction have a structure that plays a dangerous game with such a well-plotted book as Treasure Island or Ivanhoe.  Your "convincing" argument concludes with Great Expectations and Huckleberry Finn fitting the description of the type of novel called picaresque.  Most persons who use this term mean an engaging character, say Tom Jones, setting off on a series of events of rather loose connectivity.

Early on in your reading life, you were aware of classmates and those younger than you rendering summaries of picaresque stories in a sing-song narrative of their own.  "There are these two, or three, or four guys, see, and they all end up in the Foreign Legion, see, and then they--and then they--and then they--"  You cringed when you heard such recitations for two reasons, one not of immediate meaning for you.  The narrative could make something as rousing and colorful as, say, Gunga Din, sound flat, boring.  The more sophisticated aspect was your growing realization that, much as you wanted to become a storyteller, you could not devise a plot with anything resembling ease.

"Suppose,"  you wondered out loud to your sister, "Beethoven realized he had a lousy sense of rhythm."

"You are aware,"  your sister replied, "that Beethoven had gone deaf before composing those last, wonderful string quartets?  Much use he had for hearing when he wrote those?"

Little brothers are more known for smarty-pants hypotheses than for snappy comeback.  You were aware; but at the time, you were open to anything resembling nuance.  And you can say now with some retrospective authority that nuance and its lack were major factors in your choices of things to read at early ages, meaning that rereading them in later years was the equivalent of seeing what you'd missed before.

Once, when you were about nineteen or twenty, already smoking English cigarettes and ordering sherry on fake ID, you told your sister that you could see yourself growing more urbane--you used that word--with each rereading of a book you thought you'd gotten the marrow from first time through.

"We'll see,:  your sister. who loved you, said.

While you were broadcasting your urbanity to your sister, you were not all that far from reading and loving Henry Fielding's novel, Tom Jones, which you grabbed onto because it was picaresque and because you were already demonstrating to yourself and a number of magazine editors that you and plotting were not going steady.  

At that stage of your development, urbanity meant your acceptance of the fact that any novel you wrote would be more picaresque than structured.  Of course, this was also your stage of development in which you declaimed to a leading Herman Melville specialist that Moby-Dick was at heart a picaresque novel.  You got the impression he was waiting for you to finish the sentence.  This was a difficult time for both of you.

During your senior year, a picaresque novel appeared that changed the way you looked at picaresque.  Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March not only changed the way you looked at picaresque, it became yet another experience where a book changed your life.  

You knew from reading Augie that you had at least another ten years of work ahead of you.  Even though you were publishing picaresque things within five or six years, you were standing on the verge of a time of depression; there was yet more to learn and absorb.  You now had three first-person novels of more or less picareqsue structure into which you could repair.  Huck, Expectations, and Augie.

An author of two novels in your hundred made another suggestion that took years off the mound of work ahead.  "Why,"  Dorothy B. Hughes asked you, "don't you try your hand at a mystery novel?  That will get you focused on story in ways no other genre can."

Monday, June 29, 2015

How to Make First-Person More Personal

The first time you read Huckleberry Finn, you were not ready to consider anything except the inevitable way the author pushed the character deeper into adventure.  You were convinced of the authenticity and motives of the character.  Nothing else mattered.  Huck and Jim may have been traveling on a raft, the run-away slave Jim may have been progressing deeper into slave territory rather than away from it.  

None of that mattered, nor did some of the nomenclature of storytelling you'd discover soon enough:  Huck Finn was narrated in the first person point of view. Huck may have had some choice comments about Mr. Mark Twain, who wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but you knew this time it was Huck talking, not Mr. Twain.

You also knew how much closer you felt to Huck than Tom, in part because the narrative came directly from Huck, but as we get to know both boys from their actions and behavior, the choice becomes quite clear, and so do the meanings and nuances that separate them.

You knew your way around a few big-ticket terms by the time you got to Willa Cather's novel, My Antonia.  You began with negative feelings because it was set in a place of no interest to you.  By then you'd had enough experiences being, as the writer-publisher-editor Sol Stein described it, taken somewhere you had no intention of going.  

By then, you'd had experience with another first-person narrative, Great Expectations.  This novel had some ending problems as well, you'd heard, causing there to be another ending, more solicitous of the protagonist, Pip.  You admired the use of narration.  You could not see Mr. Dickens' presence here in asides and summary, as you could in some of the other Dickens titles you read.

By the time My Antonia came along, you still liked Huck more, but were beginning to consider how first person narration kept the author out of the story while presenting a closer, more intimate experience with a story.

When you began to see the delicious designs and intent behind My Antonia, you could scarcely keep your seventeen-year-old self under control.  Because of Cather's remarkable sleight-of-hand with the narrative, you realized how empowering her novel was.  You did not use that word, much less consider it, instead, you began to understand the kinds of thought and execution necessary before a novel would come to life in your hands.

Cather's device captured you.  There she was, for a while a narrator, for all practical and dramatic purposes, herself.  This made her an easy narrator to trust.  She now lived in New York, but had roots in Black Hawk, Nebraska.  So did her fictional contemporary, Jim Burden, who grew up there with his grandparents, Josiah and Emmaline.

Jim is a successful lawyer in New York, married to an influential family but not in a loving relationship with his wealthy wife.  This is a subtle but important point.  Cather is herself, a respected and talented editor, on the verge of writing her own distinctive work, much of which pays tribute to Black Hawk in particular, but the Prairie in a loving tribute of generality.

They are riding back to New York after each had come to Black Hawk for a visit. Passengers on a long train ride, they begin to reminisce about their childhood in Black Hawk, and one remarkable family of Bohemian immigrants, the Shimerdas.  Their attention is drawn back to "Tony," Antonia Shimerda, her great appetite for life and her qualities that define her as an exceptional person.

By this point, you are ready to fall in love with Antonia, but the learning process still awaits you.  Cather and Jim Burden agree to write notes of their Antonia memories, then share then at a later time in New York.  A few weeks later, Burden shows up at Cather's apartment, a thick sheaf of notes.  Cather confesses she has none.  Burden extends his sheaf of manuscript.  "Here," he says, "is my Antonia," and now we know not only why the novel is called My Antonia, we are switched to Burden as a narrator, a seamless shift from Cather to her invented character, Jim Burden.

But there is yet more to absorb here.  The subtext of Jim Burden's accounting of Antonia Shimerdas extends well beyond mere admiration, to the point where you began rooting for him to see the shallowness of his own life and the potential for a deeper happiness with Antonia.

Even at your relatively young and much more romantic visions, you could see how such a union would turn a remarkable story into a forced, comedic kind of ending, and you'd already begun to dread the endings of some of the novels you were reading.  (You'll spend a few paragraphs on this same theme when you come to Walter Scott's novel, Ivanhoe.)  Cather knew how to manage that difficult quality within a narrator of reliability and honesty.

The last time you read My Antonia, perhaps two years ago, you were running through focal points to present to the class for which you'd assigned it.  At one point, you felt the tug of sadness that Burden and Antonia did not recognize the spark of romance you saw for them.  Then you realized with a certainty that Cather had not only forborne to have these two likable characters connect, she intended for some of Antonia's readers to feel the same way.

Because of its use of Burden, a man who could well have thought to step in, and declare himself to Antonia, the novel helps us see Antonia Shimerdas as more than a single person.  Along with her exquisite prose that makes the Prairie come to life, Cather asks us to see Antonia as an incarnation of the Prairie, with the great, vigorous immigrant vitality and capacity to endure the hardships of which the Prairie can inflict.

Twain caught you with narrative voice and a sense of using first person narration to tell the best possible version of the story.  Cather does the same in Antonia, adding to Twain's love of the river her own special feel for a part of the country you'd written off as a dull blur.  Sometimes, when you want to convey a sense of place, you pick up Antonia, read at random, close your eyes for a few moments, then listen to the surroundings in your story.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Huckleberry Finn

You were driven to Huckleberry Finn because you'd just come from reading  "a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that was made by Mr. Mark Twain."  

There you were, a scant ten years old, short, owl-eyed, a burgeoning reader, your biggest adventure to that time being driven in a raspy old Buick from your place of birth in Los Angeles to the hometown of your parents on the other side of the continent by a cranky man named Earl and his wife, Hazel, who sang off-key love songs.

To date, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer had been your conveyance out of the mundane your age dictated,  into vast, rolling rivers, hidden islands, secret caches, and the unfettered adventures of boys your age, compliant on the surface, like you, but accomplices to romanticism on the inside.

Huckleberry Finn grabbed you from the first line, so much so that you could go no farther in your reading that day.  Instead, you mulled that first sentence and its magnificent voice, again and again.  You were given over to reading, but you'd never, not even in Robert Louis Stevenson, come across a narrative voice like that.  

Never mind that you did not at the time know what narrative voice was, mind instead that the next day, you approached your teacher at Public School Number Ten to ask her, showing your copy of Huck, if writers such as Mr. Mark Twain were able to make a living from writing such things.

Your good luck was her response.  "Few writers have Mr. Twain's ability.  A writer would have to know many of the things he knows about telling stories."

Often, even at that age, your curiosity pushed you over the boundaries of polite deference to adults.  "Such as?"  you said.

And here, Mrs. DeAngelo burned her words and presence into your memory.  "Mr. Twain,"  she said, "Makes telling stories seem easier than it really is."  She spoke in the nasal, don't-give-a-damn about the final consonants on words so common to Middlesex County, New Jersey.

Over the years, you've learned much from Huck and Mrs. DeAngelo's advice, beginning with the realities of regional dialects.  You, California born and raised, spoke in an inflectionless range, emphasizing first words of sentences, then pausing at the end, translating the period as a half or full stop.

Huck Finn got you right into a colloquial, conversational tone, as though Huck were confiding directly to you, not merely relating a series of events.  The more times you read him, the more you realized how much you knew about how he felt.  With each successive reading, you became aware how far ahead of the narrative stream Mr Twain had been, back there in the 1880s, how close you felt to all concerned, how you'd become an eavesdropper at all the goings-on in the narrative.

You had no way of realizing it during those early readings, but you were teaching yourself to read beyond the story, wanting, and getting more out of the narrative from the way characters behaved to one another.

And that narrative voice Huck has.  The closest thing you'd come to it was Charles Dickens' venture into first-person narrative, Great Expectations. 

Somewhere into your college career, you made connection connection with Ernest Hemingway's observation, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn."   Ever since you heard that assessment, you returned with some regularity to Huck, looking for such elements as theme, narrative, dialogue, and the motivation of characters.

Huck also intrigued you because of its format, which is driven by Huck's joining with the runaway slave, Jim, his growing friendship with him, and the cultural guilt Huck felt at helping Jim remain at large.

At one point, your reading of Huck prompted you to read Twain's magisterial Life on the Mississippi, which led you to see how Huck's efforts to get away from his abusive father had a thematic parallel to a Twain's own time on the River.  You also came to regard the famed feud between the Grangefords and Shephersons as one more vital theme, yet another significant influence on Huck, who was by no means the same person, at the end, taking off for the Territory ahead.  Could this feud, you wondered early on, have any inferential reference to what was called in your part of the country, the Civil War, and in other parts where you lived the War of Northern Aggression?

The more you read Huck over the years, the more you saw significant and important differences between him and Tom Sawyer.  For some time after reading Tom's adventures, he was your default role model; you wanted to be like him, were in your fantasy world, quite like him, the only thing missing in your fantasy an outlier friend such as Huck.

With each successive reading, you were more drawn to Huck than Tom.  You wished to be him, rather than Tom.  Then, a curious and wonderful thing happened.  Kipling Hagopian, a film producer and director friend of your dear chum, Barnaby Conrad, asked you to read a film script he was developing, in which Tom and Huck met in later years, when each was in his late thirties.

This pushed you over the edge to onward favoring and admiring Huck.  The fact of Mr. Twain bringing Tom into the later chapters of Huckleberry Finn was, in your belief, a tragic mistake, taking the edge off this grand picaresque romp, turning it into a needless teasing and bating of the runaway slave, Jim.

To learn so much from one novel has been the kind of education you needed when you began your own journey, down the river of narrative.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

In a Minute, or In the Minute?

For as long as you've been able to say without hesitation that your favorite kind of story was a mystery , your approaches to reading have undergone change.  You found mystery in stories you'd never have thought to consider as mystery.  

To cite such extremes of example, short fiction by the likes of Ann Beattie, John Cheever, and one of your most favored of all short story writers, D. H. Lawrence, tell and told stories in which no detective or investigator appeared, and yet, mystery did. These worthies wrote stories resonant with the mystery of what the characters might do, once they discovered-- Discovered what, you ask.

The mystery and its solution orbited about characters who'd encountered moral and existential problems they were attempting to solve.  Even in the seemingly urban abyss stories of Cheever and Beattie, plausible individuals were looking for clues to lead them to the puzzle they live on a day-to-day basis.  

The same standards apply to these hapless individuals as the suspects and victims in mysteries.  Means, motive, and opportunity.  Thus, an intriguing puzzle that someone had to solve.  To the extent they were able to initiate a discovery process, you rooted for these individuals.

What have you in common with, say, Ned Merrill, the protagonist of John Cheever's story, "The Swimmer"?  You are of a different social class, with different life styles, different career and family goals.  And yet, Ned Merrill seems to be searching for something that goes beyond the mere conceit of a man on a summer day, deciding to make a game of swimming his way home, from pool to pool in suburban Connecticut.

You like the story because, as it progresses, you are able to draw more inferences from Ned's experiences than Ned does.  What seemed like an amusing idea from him has at its roots a tragic conclusion, so clear in its implications that you've often wondered if the author were writing from his own, deeply felt and deeply disastrous personal experiences.

Of the many things you admire about Cheever's work is the ease with which you are able to enter his worlds and their respective quandaries.  This ease of entry transcends your close association with the milieu in which the story is set.  You believe in a kind of transcendental bonding.  The story speaks, Cheever and, yes, Ann Beattie, and certainly D. H. Lawrence stop what they're doing and listen.  At some point, how many drafts in?, the story and the teller merge.

This is a quality you bring to the things you do, write, edit, and teach.  When the circumstances are right, you merge with the task, an energizing, somewhat unsettling, but exciting state of being in which the task is talking to you.  All the while of this conversation, you understand that matters of correctness or error, rightness or wrong, go out the window.  You understand you can be wrong, but your own wrong, and thus your truthful wrong.  You are willing to live by your visions and versions, content in the awareness that someone else may have a more cogent conversation with the same set of ideas.

You do not write, edit, or teach to be right.  You do so to be in conversation with the project.  At the moment, whatever else you may be doing socially or professionally, you are in conversation with The Hundred Novels You Need to Read before You Write Your own.  It comes and goes in your dreams, often in humorous "takes" where you wake up laughing at the outrageous pun your dreams have created from the content.

In the process of aging, you've become more detail oriented and methodical, two concepts that, even in these waking moments cause you a snort of amusement.  Such things were not the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old you.  Not until your late forties did you begin to notice the desire to go back over a word, a phrase, a sentence.  When you were in collaborative tandem with your late great pal, Digby Wolfe, you noticed he'd appear to be stuck on something.  When you said "What?" he'd direct you back, perhaps two or three pages, to something that didn't seem right.

How the fuck were you ever going to get a project finished working that way, a word at a time?       But the way things have turned out,how the fuck were you ever going to get closure on a project if you did not get every beat in place.  

When you had a full head of hair, you were afflicted with any number of cowlicks, each eager to demonstrate its own approach to grain and wave configuration.  You had the choices of wearing your hair short, as you do now, wearing it at length where it could be curled, or slathering handsful of pomade or cream to suppress the cowlick rebellion.  At some point you made the connection:  story is like your cowlicks head, springing out at its own whim and volition.

When you compose, you strive for what you like to think of as a conversational order, not necessarily the calculated paragraph logic of the newspaper story, which can be cut from bottom to top until, in frequent circumstances, the only thing left is the lede, the first paragraph.  Nevertheless, that paragraph tells the story.  DOVER, England.  Nobody attempted to win the English Channel today.  Maybe tomorrow.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Digging in

With great thanks to your longtime association as friend and editor with the archaeologist, Brian Fagan, you have begun to see new projects coming your way as a smattering of potsherds, some singular artifact, or, best of all, as an intact skeleton.  Your job becomes getting as much or all of the relic out of the dirt in which it is buried.

Then comes the moments of spreading such materials as you can find on a table top or some at the moment part of the floor not being used for other such melodrama.  At this point, you stand back, cup of coffee in hand, surveying your discovery.  

Of course the dirt in which it had been buried is a metaphor for the ever deepening internal bed of the subconscious, which is below the level of immediate consciousness for at least this very reason, in addition to the others it evolved to perform for us.  And of course sifting through layers of subconscious will stir associations not expected.

For the longest time during these past few months, you'd been obsessed with putting to work one of the bits of conventional wisdom relating to writing you'd taken as a core belief.  Before writing in a genre new to you, you should do some research, find out what the top three or four basics of that genre are, read those, then read about a hundred others.

Part of what you unearthed from this speculative digging is your wish to embark on a novel you'd been playing with for about a year.  But somehow the idea of compiling a list of the one hundred novels that, at first reading, had the effect of knocking you on your ass persisted.  

So you spent some time noting those novels, winnowing your list to a hundred that seemed appropriate,.  But the matter didn't let you sign off on a task for which there'd be no effective use.

After more digging and sifting, you were at the point just below despair, where you saw nothing further to do with your list except the possibility of rereading those hundred novels, but to what effect>  Rereading them could have a splendid cumulative effect on your vision, could even inform buried aspects of the novel you wish to work on.

The way such things work with you, you were preparing for something away from the point of focus, notes, in fact, for a class.  This was pulling the cork from the bottle, allowing the genie trapped inside to escape.  Of a sudden, there was The Hundred Novels You Should Read Before You Write One, which was, of course, your hundred novels.  You'd have to prepare a five- or six-hundred-word essay on each one, describing what tools and approaches you got from each novel.  

But that was still not enough.  You dug, sifted, brushed aside distractions to the point where the skeleton had become whole.  This was a book.  In this book, you would name and describe your hundred novels, then challenge the reader to do her/his own version of your list.  No guarantees that this will make the reader a writer, anymore than it made you one, although, as you think of it, these hundred novels convinced you of your ultimate goal, got you to think about how being a writer would feel.

You weren't comfortable with the idea of simply listing your hundred key novels, then having to explain why they were not in order of preference or part of any chronology.  This led you to breaking your hundred novels into four sections, Coming of Age, The Search, The Puzzle, and The Institution, each to be prefaced with a few hundred words explaining what these four sections meant to you.

Your pleasure at the moment has to do with the way the idea first came to you, almost in chunks and a partial sense of what needed to be done, increasing as more of the shape spoke to you while you were dusting off the skeleton.

Story  has shape, whether it is dramatic, involving characters which represent emotions, goals, and ways of dealing with inner urges, or whether the story has facts, ideas, and theories instead of characters.

Thursday, June 25, 2015


In the past few days, you've noted bits of conventional wisdom thrown at you after you'd made your intentions clear about becoming a writer.  Such intentions came to mean earning enough from your writing to be able to live at some standard approximating comfort.  

True enough, when you began to see how much the cost was for living at standards you considered comfortable, you expended considerable time pursuing the ways of radio and television script writing and, in one whoop-de-doo period, writing for the screen.

Let's drawn a line in the autobiographical sands, separating the need to indulge such jobs as auctioneer's assistant, mail order copywriter, night watch person, greeter for a hot dog stand, and television non-speaking extra to the point where your earnings came as a direct result of something you'd written or from your editorial activities relative to things other persons had written, or to you teaching university-level courses relative to things that had been written.  This would place you in at late twenties to early thirties.

You were well aware of being on the other side of the line when at one point of remarkable financial nadir, the only job you could get was writing novels for various series in which no by-lines were given.  These jobs were arranged through a literary agent you'd met earlier--and quite fallen in love with--when she was an editor to whom you sold massmarket rights to hardcover books your company published.  This very former editor, now agent, warned you off of writing under such conditions, completing the established cycle of irony.

Other conventions of which you were apprised had to do with not setting anything you wrote in a Latin American country, not wasting your time writing modern Gothic, not writing multiple point of view novels, not writing mystery novels in which there was only one corpse.

You've been scolded on numerous occasions in the matter of showing versus telling, a conventional wisdom in constant replay down the corridors of writing programs, writers' conferences, and writers' workshops the way Al Jolson's voice sings for the ages from a PA system mounted within his sarcophagus in the La Brea Avenue Cemetery where his mortal remains reside.  You've also been given that most ubiquitous of all assertions of conventional wisdom, the exhortation to kill my darlings.

By that expression, kill your darlings, two approaches are meant.  The most severe intends that you go through the entire manuscript, therein to delete any description you labored over to the point of making it sound literary, in similar spirit removing metaphor, simile, amphibole, and, if possible, synecdoche.  The less hawkish approach intends that you regard your last description or metaphorical device with the cold eye of Dick Cheney assessing a potential hunting partner.

Were you to have nothing to say about these exhortations, your silence itself would be voice enough even in the breech to say something significant about you.  But this is not about you in connection with them, this is about you in connection with the one convention you appreciate most, even to the point where, for some time now, you've been bringing together the pieces of a book on the subject.

The conventional wisdom here is of simultaneous great importance and irony in your estimation. The convention urges, exhorts, evangelizes reading.  Indeed, there have been novels appearing within recent times of which you've not only said, "This novel is itself a course in fiction writing," you've made the novel in question the armature about which a writing course was wrapped.  Try, for instance, Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves.

If a writer were to spend significant times each day writing and reading, that writer would be increasing his or her chances of  (a) publication, (b) making a living from writing, (c) having his or her works withstand the fifty-years-in-print test, and (d) extend the probability of landing a good teaching job to support additional writing.

Reading gives the writer a chance to see what works and how it is brought into use, as well showing what does not work because of the distractions, speed bumps, and inelegance it brings onto the page.

Thus the return of irony:  Many beginning and intermediate writers resent reading as a distraction from spending time with their own work, adding the compound thus whereby the work they produce directs us back in time to the moment these unfortunates stopped reading.  No question about it, they are unfortunate because they are missing the fresh tides, the new impressions, and the old themes in the newest costumes and attitudes.

Here's a simple equation:  When you discover a writer you consider better in reach and voice than you, without exception, that writer is better read than you, and yes, the work you're engaged with at the moment is The One Hundred Novels You Should Read Before You Write Your Own.